James O’Connor

OLIVER WAKE

James O’Connor – often known as Jimmy O’Connor – wrote a number of popular and successful television plays in the 1960s and early ‘70s, regularly collaborating with director Ken Loach. He had an unusual background for a television dramatist. He was formerly a career criminal who had turned to writing while serving a life sentence for murder, having narrowly avoided being hanged.

Early life

O’Connor’s life story encompasses the sensitive subjects of deprivation, domestic abuse and criminality which would not normally be appropriate topics for this website. We do not usually make personal biography a focus of our coverage, but O’Connor himself emphasised how his early experiences informed his television plays, as did contemporary reactions to his work, and it is important for us to understand his background to understand his work. The following account of O’Connor’s life before becoming a television playwright is drawn from O’Connor’s autobiography The Eleventh Commandment.1 Aside from the basic details of his murder conviction, reprieve and release, it is not possible to independently corroborate any of his reported life story. In view of O’Connor’s early life of dishonesty and later career as a storyteller, one may be inclined to wonder how far his account can be trusted to be accurate. We leave this for the reader to determine for themselves.

Charles Wood

OLIVER WAKE

An overview of Charles Wood’s television career

Charles Wood is a dramatist whose work spans the mediums of stage, television and film. The subjects and styles of his television work vary enormously, with comedy rubbing shoulders with harrowing drama, but stories about war, soldiers and militarism in general, all of which hold a particular fascination for him, recur. Although Wood is far from being simply a ‘war’ writer, it is perhaps his stories of soldiers and armed conflict in which his individual voice is most clear.

Peter Luke

OLIVER WAKE

Peter Luke was a writer, story editor and producer on several of British television’s most influential drama anthology series, working at both ITV and the BBC, during a period of particular creative development for the medium. His television work was, however, only one part of a varied life.

Peter Ambrose Cyprian Luke was born on 12 August 1919, the son of British diplomatic Sir Harry Luke. The Luke family was originally of Hungarian descent (the name Lukach being Anglicised to Luke) and Luke’s upbringing was cosmopolitan. In his younger years he accompanied his parents on his father’s postings around the world, during which he learned about language, culture, art and literature, before returning to England to be enrolled at Eton. On completing his schooling with the minimum of academic rigour, Luke decided he wanted to become a painter and went to art school in London and then studied at the atelier of André Lhote in Paris. He enlisted in the British army shortly after the Second World War began, leading him to Egypt and combat on the first day of the second battle of El Alamein, in which he was wounded. After recovering he was deployed in the European theatre of war, serving in Italy, France and Germany. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in Normandy following D-Day. He ended the war a Major, acting Lieutenant-Colonel.

Cedric Messina

OLIVER WAKE

Cedric Messina must be one of British television’s most prolific producers and directors of dramatic programmes, with at least 250 drama and opera productions to his name. He worked extensively in television for 25 years, always for the BBC as he was committed to the principle of public service broadcasting.

He was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to Sicilian and Welsh immigrant parents on 14 December 1920. He was brought up and educated in Johannesburg while his father worked in the copper mines of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Messina joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in the 1930s, initially working as a radio announcer and later as a producer. His broadcasting career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served with both the British and American armies.

After the war, the SABC posted Messina to Durban to set up a drama unit, where he was responsible for producing a play each week and became the broadcaster’s head of drama. From around 1947 he spent a period on attachment with BBC radio in London, where he worked as both an announcer and producer before returning to South Africa. He had been promised a permanent position with BBC radio which he later returned to claim in 1958. As a BBC radio producer he produced a variety of programming, from popular series such as Mrs Dale’s Diary to adaptations of numerous classical stage plays.1

Wear a Very Big Hat (1965)

OLIVER WAKE

The Wednesday Play; Writer: Eric Coltart; Producer: James MacTaggart; Director: Ken Loach

The Wednesday Play (1964-70) is often cited in discussions of 1960s television drama, but normally with reference to only a handful of its most well-known plays. This misrepresents the series as a whole, which comprised over 160 plays. Even some of the dramas from the series’ most acclaimed practitioners, such as Ken Loach and Dennis Potter, are overlooked in favour of their bolder, more controversial plays, with preference given to those that still exist. The neglect of plays erased from the archive is understandable, but a lack of primary evidence is no reason to disregard them entirely. Their particular attributes and secondary evidence demonstrate that many of them are well worth our attention. For example, 1965’s Wear a Very Big Hat is fascinating both as an example of The Wednesday Play’s early attempts at youthful contemporaneity and as director Ken Loach’s first entry in the series.